When I was a child, my mother would read me stories. In one such story, an ant made an elephant go berserk by entering its trunk. I kept asking myself, “how is it possible that a tiny ant could cause so much pain and suffering to a big and powerful elephant?”
Thirty years later, the story played out one more time. But this time something much smaller than an ant, a virus to be specific, has brought the world to a screeching halt. And like any other story, the story of humans and COVID-19 will play out in three acts, or phases.
Phase 1: The onset of a pandemic
When cases of a flu-like disease ‘of unknown origin’ were first reported in the Chinese manufacturing hub of Wuhan, the world at large did not pay much attention. Now, four months into a global crisis, the virus continues to spread at an unprecedented rate, disrupting social and economic interactions. With national and international authorities enforcing nation-wide lockdowns, supply chains have been severely affected by the impact of COVID-19, forcing businesses to either limit operations or cease them completely.
Enterprises realized, as the crisis escalated, that the most immediate requirement was to ensure the safety of their workforce. But at the same time, there was a need to maintain business continuity and to pandemic-proof their operations. The result was a large-scale adoption of a work-from-home (WFH) culture. Businesses have been compelled to adopt remote work models, almost overnight. This has been a major impact of COVID-19 on the global economy. In fact, a Gartner HR survey found that 88% of organizations have employed immediate remote work policies to keep the workforce safe during the pandemic.
Remote access work is not a new idea, especially with the growing popularity of the gig economy. However, it was far from being a standard concept for most enterprises, mostly seen as a trend amongs new-gen born-digital companies. Traditional organizations had opted to stay away from WFH models. Cloud-based digital workplace platforms have helped organisations ease into a collaborative, virtual work environment and played a major role in maintaining business continuity during the stressful period.
Phase 2: Staying afloat through the crisis
As the crisis unfolded, organizations realized the uncertain longevity of the pandemic. Short-term measures can only go so far in stabilizing operations, and businesses will need to reinvent themselves to stay afloat through this uncertainty. As a result, many businesses are reacting by pivoting their operations to ensure business continuity and revenue generation in the mid-term.
One of the most common trends in this regard has been the repurposing of operations, production, and research and development (R&D) capabilities to support the common cause of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, leading textile manufacturers are leveraging their expertise in material sciences to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to people at the COVID-19 frontline.
Similarly, luxury perfume brands are pivoting their capabilities to produce and supply free hand sanitizers for health authorities, and automotive manufacturers are evaluating the prospect of urgently producing medical devices such as ventilators. International authorities, such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), are also aiding manufacturers to diversify and modernize their operations to improve the means to fight the spread of the virus.
On the other hand, the travel and hospitality industry, which is among the sectors most affected by the pandemic, is reimagining its business models to serve a similar purpose. The healthcare system in most countries is not adequately prepared to manage the rapid infection rate of the SARS-CoV-2. To bridge this gap, hotels have allocated several of their rooms to house healthcare workers and non-critical patients. Recently, the State Government of Western Australia announced the “Hotels with Heart” project with the objective of helping homeless people and rough sleepers maintain isolation and social distancing by providing them accommodation in five-star hotels.
Phase 3: The post-pandemic world: Dawn of a new era
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on our lives. Even as we grow and progress through the crisis, the world will not be the same in the post-COVID-19 world.
The global economy will suffer one of the most severe aftershocks. The World Economic Forum expects the economic damage to be even greater than the Great Recession of 2008, and perhaps the greatest recession of the last 150 years.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) expects the downturn in the global economy to result in 195 million job losses, and reduce the incomes of a further 1.25 billion people. Moreover, due to an unclear recovery period, businesses across the global economy will be compelled to reduce operations and hiring capacities. As a result, the emerging workforce will face major difficulties in securing jobs after completing their education.
While white-collar job holders have the option to work from home, people in the lower-income groups have lost their source of income. This financial imbalance could, in turn, result in political and social unrest in various regions across the world. We are already witnessingviolent responses in various countries, such as protest against the Brazilian government and the rioting of Lebanese prisoners in overcrowded jails.
The future may look grim, but there is always hope. This is not the first time humanity has been tested, and it will certainly not be the last. As a species, we are hardwired to stick together, through thick and thin, and for each act of violence, there are numerous acts of compassion happening during the pandemic. In the long run, I envision the world becoming a kinder place, with stronger people and organizations. Much like the ant and the elephant, this pandemic will, above all, teach us a lesson in humility. We have seen that as the time got tougher, we stuck together, albeit two meters apart, to fight the spread of the virus. And as the dust settles in the wake of the deadly pandemic, we will emerge stronger. It may take a while, but it will not take forever.